Feb 21, 2019 — Ice climbing is kind of like the wild cousin of rock climbing; it’s cooler, has more sharp edges, and only comes around certain times of the year. Our region has a lot of opportunities to do it, especially in the Adirondacks. A complete novice to the sport, I went out with a group from the Outdoor Program at St. Lawrence University in late January to climb an ice flow at the base of Azure Mountain.
It’s about eleven in the morning when I show up to the office of St. Lawrence University’s Outdoor Program (known as the OP). A group of young, fit college students are packing ropes and ice axes. While I sign liability forms Devin Farkas, the assistant outdoor program coordinator and leader of this intro-to-ice-climbing-trip, finds me a pair of crampons. Crampons look a little like animal traps; they’re spiky contraptions you strap onto your feet, and covered in wicked, triangular blades – the two biggest ones come out like fangs above your toes.
“Very pointy,” Devin says. “They are very prone to stabbing and ripping all your things. That’s the great irony of winter climbing – you have the fluffiest, most fragile stuff, and the stabbiest stuff. It’s weird.”
Weird seems to be a theme. Mackenzie “Mack” Burns, the OP’s Program Coordinator, has been ice climbing a handful of times, and says:
“It’s weird. It’s fun, but it’s not normal movements. It’s… weird.”
We’re a party of eleven, including three student guides and five ice climbing newbies. We’re hauling a lot of stuff and Devin runs through a checklist before we start driving: does everyone have snowshoes? Crampons? Boots? A harness? “Water, snacks, thirst for adventure?”
We pack up, load into a van and a truck, and set out for Azure Mountain, in the northern Adirondacks. Once we get there Devin and one of the student guides, Hunter Corliss, race ahead to start setting up ropes while the rest of us suit up.
It’s about a 30-minute snowshoe from the Azure parking lot to the ice flow where we’ll be climbing – a long stretch of blue ice, some of it in pillars, some of it in solid sheets. It’s about 40 feet tall at its highest points. If there was a perfect day for ice climbing, this is it. Almost no wind, a bluebird sky, and it’s a relatively balmy 15 degrees.
Hunter Corliss is relatively new to ice climbing – this is his second time out – but like the rest of us, he’s a fairly experienced rock climber, which I’ve heard is supposed to help. He says yes, and no.
“It’s a lot different. Because ice falls at you, which is kind of scary. But it’s pretty fun! There’s infinite places to put your ice tools and your feet and it’s more about getting the tools to stick than anything.”
The idea is this – you hold an ax in each of your hands, and you have the spiky crampons on your feet. You lodge the pointiest bits in the ice, and basically pull yourself up. Hunter and Clare Jenkins, another student guide, try to give the new climbers a tutorial, handing us axes and setting us up in front of some ice.
They tell us to hit the ice straight on, by pulling the axes behind you and then sinking them into the ice – it reminds me of throwing something. But without actually climbing, it’s hard to get a sense of how they’ll work, and soon Hunter and Clare suggest we try a ‘trial by fire’ approach – tie in and start climbing.
This makes me pretty nervous, as I’ve yet to feel like I could pull my arm, let alone my body, up on one of these axes. I internally decide rock climbing is more my hat, and offer to belay Eloise Bellingham, one of the other new climbers, on her first try on one of the shorter pitches – only about 25 feet. She’s excited.
“It’s really cool looking! I don’t know if I’m going to make it up. Hopefully I don’t slide down!”
I’m happy to be on the ground keeping the rope tight as Eloise hacks away at the ice – which comes away in showers and rains down on our helmeted heads. It looks difficult and slippery and frustrating, but then Eloise hits her stride. She powers to the top and is beaming as I lower her to the ground, axes held carefully in her hands. I think I’m ready to try it.
My first climb is exhausting – I don’t trust my feet, I don’t trust my axes, and I’m clinging to the handles of the axes with overwhelmingly desperation and force. But soon I can recognize when I’ve had a good swing – it comes with a resounding, satisfying ring in the ice, and a sturdy crunch.
Hand, hand, foot, foot – and then I really start to move.
It’s exhilarating. As long as your ax is lodged in well, your hand holds are great, and there’s something really satisfying about kicking a spiky boot into the ice, even if it’s counterintuitive to my rockclimbing training – something that’s also tripping up student Eli Idec.
“I keep just lifting up my foot to place it somewhere and it’s like, nope, you just have to slam it in there…”
We climb for about three hours on six different ropes. The more we climb, the easier it becomes. But by the time I really get the movements, my arms are ready to quit.
Devin and the student guides start taking ropes down around 4:00 pm. By the time we’re ready to snowshoe back, there’s no more sun – just a golden sunset on the horizon. We’re euphoric, and very, very cold. We snowshoe back to the parking lot in almost complete silence, but all agree it was worth staying as long as we could.